The strategic value of international solidarity with the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, refugees in the Diaspora, and Palestinians in Israel raises some fundamental questions. The most immediate and urgent are: what the nature of international solidarity should be, and how it can best support the Palestinian struggle for self-determination.
International solidarity needs, first and foremost, to address the ways in which colonial Zionism has followed and continues to follow the Bantustanization policy of apartheid South Africa. There is also an imperative to address the severe damage that the Oslo Accords (1993) have caused to the Palestinian struggle, given the degree of confusion that these accords have created in the international arena.1
A historical analysis of the current Palestinian quagmire cannot separate apartheid and Zionism from colonialism. As Samir Amin argues very persuasively in Unequal Development (1976), in 19th-century South Africa, central capitalism and colonialists forcibly dispossessed rural African communities to satisfy their need for a large proletariat to exploit the country’s great mineral wealth. The indigenous people were driven into barren regions which left them with no alternative but to become cheap labor for European mines and farms, and later, rising South African industry. This initial dispossession slowly transformed a vibrant and dynamic society into mere labor reserves, with a gradual loss of independence, and, ultimately, the creation of apartheid and Bantustans.
However, this process was not one-sided: throughout this dispossession and remaking of South Africa into a haven for racial supremacy, the international community was mobilized by the internal South African struggle to protest against apartheid’s blatant creation of surplus labor, and against its inhuman and racist exploitation of black South Africans (see Mandela 1995). Today it is the Israeli apartheid state that is condemned for dispossessing and ethnically cleansing the native population. Israel has been accused of being worse than the apartheid state by South Africans such as Bishop Tutu, Blade Nzimande and John Dugard. These South Africans who experienced apartheid cite Israel’s use of F-16s and helicopter gunships on unarmed civilians, as well as the home-demolitions and arrests of families of suspected “militants” as practices that make Israeli apartheid qualitatively worse than that of South Africa.2
Similarities between the two apartheid states can be found in their policies on citizenship, their use of detention without trial, and laws which limit freedom of movement and the right to live in one’s own home with one’s family. Just as apartheid South Africa gave citizenship to white South Africans and relegated blacks to “independent homelands” (i.e. Bantustans), Zionism gives all Jews the right to citizenship in the State of Israel, while denying citizenship to Palestinians — the indigenous inhabitants of the land. While Apartheid used race to determine citizenship, the state of Israel uses religious identification. Just as the apartheid state made laws criminalizing free movement of blacks on their ancestral land, Israel uses a military occupation infrastructure composed of checkpoints, Jewish-only settlements and roads, the apartheid wall, plus a myriad of legal regulations that govern Palestinian daily life and are designed specifically to restrict how they work and live.
Since 1967, Israel has detained a quarter of the Palestinian male population3 and today has over 5,000 prisoners in its jails, thousands of whom have no legal recourse. Many of those incarcerated have spent years in jail for “crimes” such as entering Israel illegally. Thousands of Palestinian families live with the threat of forced separation or are already separated because they do not have the necessary permits to live together — permits Israel has refused to issue since 2000. These policies strike at the heart of family life since Palestinians are forced to apply to Israel for family reunification permits if they want to live together.
During the years of Apartheid, South Africa came under repeated pressure from the international community and multilateral organizations such as the United Nations Security Council which passed countless resolutions against it because of its inhumane treatment of blacks. This gave much-needed succor to the oppressed, while Palestinians today are bereft of even this tiny comfort because the United States continues to use its veto to ensure that Israel escapes censure from the world body.
International solidarity with the Palestinian people has, over the decades, played an extremely important, albeit dialectical, role in enhancing the struggle. There is an undeniable correlation between the different forms of struggle in the occupied territories and the international attention and solidarity it is able to command. Disturbingly, after 20 years of Israel side-stepping every commitment made in the Oslo Accords, there still strongly lingers in international civil society, a belief that the Palestinian struggle has, in essence, been resolved. Hence the urgency for an international solidarity campaign that will highlight the similarities between Apartheid and Zionism, as well as the common experience of Palestinians today, as a dispossessed people, and black South Africans under apartheid.
South Africans had to wait 27 years for their chosen leader and political party to be free to lead them; during those long years they rejected all false leaders that were foisted on them even when these quislings were celebrated by the likes of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.4 As late as 1987, Thatcher was confident enough to say that “Nelson Mandela would never be the president of a free South Africa” (quoted in Audeh 2008).
Like Thatcher’s government, other governments around the world were forced to isolate apartheid South Africa (Mandela 1995; Tutu 1994). They would not have done so without the pressure exerted on them by their own people. Israel needs to be isolated in exactly the same way as apartheid South Africa. Today, there is a growing mass-based struggle inside Palestine, as well as other forms of struggle, exactly as there was inside apartheid South Africa. An intensified international solidarity movement with a common agenda can make the struggle for Palestine resonate in every country in the world, thus closing off the world to Israelis until they open the world to Palestinians.
The Gaza Bantustan
The Palestinian national movement has overlooked this question: does the Gaza Strip resemble the racist Bantustans of apartheid South Africa? During the apartheid era, South Africa’s black population was kept in isolation and without political and civil rights. Is Gaza similar? The answer is Yes and No.
What is apartheid? As defined by the 1973 United Nations convention, apartheid is a policy of racial or ethnic segregation founded on a set of discriminatory practices that favor a specific group in order to ensure its racial supremacy over another group (see International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the crime of Apartheid 1973). In Israel, institutionalized racial discrimination is unequivocally founded on ensuring the primacy of a group of Jewish settlers over the Palestinian Arabs. When comparing the applications of the apartheid policy, it is difficult to identify any differences between white rule in South Africa and its Israeli counterpart in Palestine in terms of the segregation and designation of certain areas to Israeli Jews and others to the Arabs, the delineation of certain laws and privileges for Jews, and a discriminatory set of laws that apply only to Palestinians.
Currently, in both Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories there are two road systems, two housing systems, two educational systems and different legal and administrative systems for Jews and non-Jews. Every law enacted during the South African apartheid system has a corresponding law in Israel. This includes the Group Areas Act, the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, the Law on Movement and Permits, the Public Safety Act, the Population Registration Act, the Immorality Act, the Land Act and, of course, the Bantu Homelands Citizenship Act. The corresponding Israeli laws are the Law of Return, the 2003 “temporary” laws prohibiting mixed marriages, the Population Registry Law, the Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law, the Israeli Nationality Law, and land and property laws.
Like South Africa, Israel’s brand of apartheid is mixed with settler colonialism. As in the United States and Australia, settler colonialism in Israel and South Africa has also involved the ethnic cleansing or genocide of the indigenous people influenced by a racist and/or religious ideology of supremacy.
When evaluated along these lines, the term apartheid clearly applies to Israeli policies in the Gaza Strip. The Palestinians of the Gaza Strip are isolated from the rest of the population in historical Palestine, and do not enjoy minimum political rights and basic living conditions available to Jewish residents because they were born to mothers from the “wrong” religion. In this context, it should be recalled that 80 percent of the population in the Strip were ethnically cleansed in 1948 and are barred from returning to the villages and cities from which they were driven. (see Roy 2007)
The Bantustans were part of apartheid South Africa’s racist formula to separate the black population and preserve white supremacy. Although the Bantustans were called “independent homelands,” their inhabitants were not granted equal rights or even independent political decision-making power – a harbinger of what is planned for the so-called independent Palestinian state within the June 1967 borders. In South Africa, the debate was about 11 states that could live side by side in peace. In spite of Pretoria’s best efforts, the Bantustans gained no international recognition.
Gaza, however, is deprived of even this racist formula. As Saree Makdisi (2010) maintains, Israel appears to have learned a lesson from South Africa. It did not appoint local leaders to provide “limited self-government” over the West Bank and Gaza. Rather, in coordination with the United States and shielded by the international community, Israel allowed “free” elections to take place so that the Bantustanization process could gain “legitimacy” and international approval as an allegedly independent Palestinian state. Although hailed internationally, the elections which took place under occupation were a Palestinian tragedy. Israel succeeded in enticing the indigenous people in Palestine to promote the illusion of potential “independence” for segments of 22 percent of historical Palestine.
Gaza under siege
At the same time, the answer to the question of whether “apartheid” applies to Gaza is also No. The Gaza Strip has devolved from being a Bantustan during the Oslo accord years (1993-2002) into a large concentration camp. Makdisi argues that the difference between the two kindred regimes – Israel and apartheid South Africa – is “the difference between inferiority and dehumanization.” He goes further and explains it as the “difference between exploitation and genocide” (2010).
Never, throughout the history of apartheid in South Africa, did the armed forces use the full force of their military against the civilian population in townships. In contrast, since the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada in September 2000 and culminating in the 2008-09 and 2012 invasions, Gaza has been attacked by F-16s, Apache helicopter gunships, warships, Merkava Tanks and internationally prohibited phosphorus bombs (see Goldstone Report).
Israel’s siege on Gaza was imposed after Palestinians elected Hamas in internationally sanctioned and observed elections in 2006. It was tightened after Hamas defeated forces loyal to the Fatah faction of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in June 2007. Since then, the list of items banned from entering Gaza covered more than 200 articles including cement, paper, cancer medications, and even pasta and chocolate! According to the Israeli organization Gisha-Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, Israel granted access to only 97 articles, compared to 4,000 before the blockade. About 80 percent of the Gaza Strip’s population survive on humanitarian aid. More than 90 percent of Gaza’s factories have been shut down.5
When the 18-month-old siege failed to break the will of Palestinians in Gaza, Israel launched its deadly invasion at the end of 2008. According to human rights organizations and the UN-sanctioned Goldstone report (2009), more than 1,400 Palestinians, including more than 300 children, were killed and thousands wounded. Israel destroyed at least 11,000 homes, 105 factories, 20 hospitals and clinics as well as 159 schools, universities and technical institutes. Furthermore, it resulted in the displacement of 51,800 persons of whom 20,000 remain homeless (see also PCHR 2013).
Commenting on this situation, Karen Abu Zayd, former Commissioner-General for UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees, said: “Gaza is on the threshold of becoming the first territory to be intentionally reduced to a state of abject destitution with the knowledge, acquiescence and – some would say – encouragement of the international community” (Abu Zaid 2008).
Learning from the South African Anti-apartheid Movement
There is an urgent need, at this historic moment, to reshape international public opinion that is supportive of the Palestinian cause with emphasis on the multiple similarities between Zionism and the apartheid regime in South Africa. This can be accomplished by focusing on the common suffering of the indigenous black population and the Palestinians today, not only in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip but also in the Palestinian Diaspora and inside Israel.
It is unfortunate that the “official” Palestinian leadership has not studied and learned lessons from the South African experience. On the contrary, they almost unanimously accepted the creation of a type of Bantustan-based system that the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa rejected. One wonders about the real reason behind this deliberate disregard of a very rich experience. Does it derive from the same misguided notion as that of the Bantustan leaders who claimed African racial nationalism? Does it involve chauvinism and lack of openness to other people’s experiences? Is our cause really so exceptional from a historical point of view that we must accept racist structures promoted as an “autonomous” solution?
Unfortunately, the struggle for liberation has been reduced to one for Bantustans. In other words, the consciousness of the Palestinian struggle has split as a result of fetishizing the concept of state at the expense of liberation, nullifying the right of return without saying so, and the tiresome reiteration of the “Palestinian national project.” This stands in conflict with the aspirations of the vast majority of the Palestinian people, who are refugees, guaranteed the right of return under international law.
The option of an independent Palestinian state has become impossible for several reasons, including Israel’s endeavors to transform settlements into cities, increase the number of settlers to more than half a million, build the apartheid wall in the occupied West Bank, expand Greater Jerusalem and cleanse it of its Palestinian inhabitants, and systematically turn Gaza into the largest detention center on the face of the Earth. It is obvious that the Palestinian national movement as a whole has been infected with the virus of the Oslo accords. The Oslo virus creates false consciousness that transforms the struggle for liberation, the return of refugees, human rights and full equality, into a struggle for “independence” with limited sovereignty: a flag, a national anthem, and a small piece of land on which to exercise municipal sovereignty and establish ministries, all with the permission of the occupier.
The other side of the Palestinian leadership, i.e. Hamas, frequently proposes 10-year and 20-year truces, arguing that the truce is an “alternative” to the demise of the two-state solution. Although there are no significant differences between these two sides in terms of the principle of accepting a purely nationalist solution to the Palestinian cause, this minor disagreement has gained greater prominence and has been employed to serve the racist two-state dogma. The so-called “alternative” of a 20-year truce bets that the pragmatic nature of this call will “persuade” the international community. In fact, it lacks a clear strategic vision to resolve the conflict in a way that ensures the return of refugees. What does a 20-year truce mean? Isn’t this a message to the refugees to endure another 20 years until the balance of power shifts? What happens if it does not shift?
The two-state solution has unfortunately become the prevailing political discourse over the past two decades. Some traditionally leftist intellectuals, having been transformed into a socially and politically right-wing or “neo-liberal” left, defend this solution as the only one available given the prevailing balance of power. They also defend it as a transitional or interim scheme. They occasionally threaten to espouse the one-state settlement, using this as a scarecrow not only to frighten Israel but also against us, the indigenous population. These attempts reveal an ideological decline and a lack of faith in the ability of the Palestinian people and the broader international solidarity movements to make revolutionary changes like those that took place against the apartheid regime. My contention is that the tools of resistance adopted by the anti-apartheid movement give the Palestinians valuable lessons to learn from.
This, however, does not by any means signify a cut-and-paste approach. Those who are unfamiliar with the South African political map should not get the impression that the South African approach is the ‘correct’ solution to the Palestinian problem. Turning power over from white to black hands has, in fact, helped many apartheid perpetrators to literally get away with their crimes.
To avoid the pitfalls of national consciousness, Frantz Fanon rightly argues, immediate steps should be taken toward political and social consciousness after independence. Has this happened in South Africa? In John Pilger’s words, “revolution [in South Africa] has been betrayed!’ (Pilger 1998). The betrayal of the black masses, corruption, privatization, lack of government intervention in fighting AIDS, poverty and crime, deterioration of education in black townships – are just a few symptoms of a still divided and economically troubled country.
In fact, the inconsistency of the ANC corresponds to that of the petty-bourgeoisie. This is why it has shown itself in the end to be conservative with regard to the main problems, like other traditionally ‘white’ parties, and why it does not give any thought to land reforms for example, not to mention nationalization.
Any critical perspective shows how the interests of the previous controlling class are protected and reconciled with the revolutionary past of the new black middle class. One wonders whether there are any fundamental differences between the reformist program that led to the emergence of a ‘new’ South Africa and the ideological program that was undertaken by many white South African investment bankers and capitalists. Substantially the same program has been supported by the ANC-led government. What it has rejected is not apartheid as such, but rather the legal apparatus that was imposed to facilitate the extraction of surplus labor.
The program of the ANC-led government tends to obscure class-relations by moralizing race over class. Thus, the current regime does not represent a radical change in class-relations, but rather a modification of social relations of capital. The racist extraction of surplus value has, in other words, become ‘human’, ‘liberal’, and most importantly, ‘black’.
This is what the Palestinian anti-apartheid movement should take into consideration.
In a short story entitled “The Music of the Violin,” by South African writer Njabulo Ndebele, one of the characters comments on the “concessions” made by the apartheid regime to indigenous people: “That’s how it is planned. That we be given a little of everything, and so prize the little we have that we forget about freedom” (1983: 147). In that same story, a black revolutionary intellectual says that he’d “rather be a hungry dog that runs freely in the streets, than a fat, chained dog burdened with itself and the weight of the chain” (132). These two examples from South Africa summarize the lessons colonized Palestinians should learn. There was no potential for coexistence with apartheid in South Africa, and Palestinians should accept no less, heeding the advice of the late visionary Palestinian intellectual, Edward Said (2000): “Equality or Nothing!”
Abu Zaid, Karen. 2008. “This brutal siege of Gaza can only breed violence.” The Guardian, January 23,
Amin, Samir. 1976 Unequal Development: An Essay on the Special Formations of Peripheral Capitalism. London: Harvester Press.
Audeh, Ida.2003. “Peace Train: End apartheid in Palestine.” Daily Camera.
Barghouti, Omar. 2011. BOYCOTT, DIVESTMENT, SANCTIONS: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights. Chicago: 2011
Goldstone Report. 2009. Report of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict: Human Rights in Palestine and Other Occupied Arab Territories. UN Human Rights Council. www.goldstonereport.org/facts/documents
International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the crime of Apartheid. 1973. http://untreaty.un.org/cod/avl/ha/cspca/cspca.html
Mandela, Nelson.1995. Long Walk to Freedom. London: Little, Brown.
Makdisi, Saree. 2010. “A racism outside of language: Israel’s apartheid,” Pambazuka News, March 11. http://pambazuka.org/en/category/features/62928
Ndebele, Njabulu. 1983. “The Music of the Violin.” Fools. Johannesburg: Ravan Press.
Pilger, John. 1998. “A Revolution Betrayed”. Electronic Mail & Guardian.
PCHR. 2013. Palestine Centre for Human Rights
Roy, Sara. 2007. Failing Peace: Gaza and the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict. London: Pluto Press.
Said, Edward. 2000. “The Gap Grows Wider.” Al-Ahram Weekly, March (No. 471). http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2000/471/op2.htm
Tutu, Desmond. 1994. The Rainbow People of God: South Africa’s Victory over Apartheid. London: Transworld Publishers.
1. For the text of the accords, see
http://middleeast.about.com/od/documents/a/Declaration-Of-Principles.htm. For my critique of them, see Haidar Eid, “The Oslo Accords: A Critique,” September 13, 2013, www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2013/09/201391282358965793.html
2. For testimonies of South African visitors to Palestine, see
3. See Addameer, www.addameer.org/etemplate.php?id=275
4. As was acknowledged by Tory leader David Cameron in 2006
5. For an update on the impact of the blockade on the daily lives of the residents of Gaza, see Gisha-Legal Centre for Freedom of Movement.
www.gisha.org/cat-select.asp?lang_id=en&p_id=63, and reports by PCHR.